Colombia’s left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter, promised “total peace” when he took office last year. So far, the result has been an increase in violence by armed groups that have disproportionate power in the South American nation.
The rapidly deteriorating security situation has raised fears that Colombia is returning to the violence of decades past, a concern that attracted global attention with the kidnapping of the father of Liverpool football star Luis Díaz last month.
Across Colombia, kidnappings have increased by more than 80% under Petro’s government, extortion cases have increased by 27% and the homicide rate has barely declined, according to official data comparing the first year of the new government with the last 12 months of Iván Duque’s center-right administration. Instead of confronting security forces, illegal armed groups now fight each other to expand their territory and control lucrative smuggling routes.
Díaz’s father was taken hostage by the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest rebel group that is negotiating with the government, casting doubt on the credibility of the peace process. Luis Manuel Díaz was released unharmed on Nov. 9, but about 25 other hostages remain in ELN captivity, according to the nonpartisan conflict monitoring group Cerac.
“The initial suggestion of ‘total peace’ accelerated the violence,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior Colombia analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Armed and criminal groups intensified operations to consolidate territory and improve their negotiating position before Petro took office. The ceasefires he declared in the first half of this year were a tactical gift to these groups. Without the Army pressuring them , they were free to rearm, recruit and resupply.”
Now, Colombia appears to be paying a high price for the security vacuum in its conflict zones. “If there is no territorial control by the State, people lose faith in the process,” admitted a political ally of the president. “There is no peace process in the world that is not accompanied by a robust security policy.”
Petro, a member of the M-19 guerrilla group that demobilized in 1990, remains committed to the peace plan, arguing that changing course would “open the way for a new cycle of violence.”
The government is in peace talks with the ELN and Estado Mayor Central, a dissident group linked to the dissolved FARC. He also expressed interest in negotiating surrender agreements with non-political criminal gangs, such as drug traffickers.
Colombia’s descent into violence began after the 1948 assassination of a leftist leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and intensified after Marxist guerrilla groups began operating in the early 1960s, inspired by the Cuban revolution. The rebels fought a low-intensity war against the state before becoming involved in drug trafficking. In turn, landowners financed paramilitaries to fight the guerrillas. The conflict claimed around 450,000 lives from 1958 to 2016, according to Colombia’s Truth Commission.
A turning point came in 2016, when the government reached a peace agreement with the FARC, the largest guerrilla group at the time. Marxist rebels agreed to give up their weapons in exchange for political concessions, justice for victims of the conflict and a greater state presence in remote areas. But implementation has been uneven.
Of the 578 commitments made in the 2016 agreement, about half had been implemented at a minimum level by November 2022 or had not been implemented at all, according to a study published in June by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching the peace deal with the FARC while he was president, said Petro needs to properly implement existing agreements to create a solid basis for negotiations with other rebel groups.
“‘Total Peace’ will fail unless it is built on what has been achieved with the FARC,” he told the Financial Times. “If the foundations fail, everything else will fail.”
Oliver Wack, Control Risks’ general director for the Andean region, said Petro had not balanced peace talks with tactics to ensure security. “The erosion of the operational and intelligence capabilities of security forces […] resulted in the strengthening of the control of armed groups in rural areas and the expansion of drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion and kidnapping.”
Petro’s peace commissioner, Danilo Rueda, did not respond to interview requests, but Iván Cepeda, a senator from the ruling coalition who has been negotiating with the ELN, defended the “total peace” strategy, blaming deteriorating security on criminal trends that have created tempting opportunities for armed groups in Colombia.
“It’s a mutation of drug trafficking in the Americas and around the world,” he said. “New cocaine markets have emerged, marijuana markets have strengthened, and if that wasn’t enough, there is the synthetic drug market. This means the emergence of new transnational criminal organizations.”
Cepeda said gangs also profited from smuggling migrants from South America and the Caribbean through Colombia.
“Taking a migrant from a southern country to the U.S. is a fantastic deal if you do it with thousands of people,” he said. “Illegal mining has also strengthened.” He said the solution would be an economic “revolution” in remote areas to replace illicit activities with sustainable growth.
The peace process was further tarnished by allegations that Petro’s son Nicolás received financial contributions from suspected drug traffickers in exchange for promises to include them in peace negotiations.
Petro’s son was arrested in July and initially offered to cooperate with prosecutors, but later changed his mind and denied charges of money laundering and illicit enrichment. The president said he was not aware of any irregularities.
Meanwhile, opinion polls show that Colombians are losing faith in the “total peace” plan. Just 37% said peace talks with the ELN should continue, while 53% were against, according to a Datexco poll published on November 12. A total of 52% said Rueda, the peace commissioner, should resign.
On Wednesday night (22), Petro announced that Rueda would resign as peace commissioner, being replaced by Otty Patiño, the government’s main negotiator with the ELN.
The ELN, founded in the 1960s by student radicals, is particularly unpopular because of its predilection for kidnappings. Its leader Eliécer Herlinto Chamorro, who uses the pseudonym Antonio García, admitted in a Telegram message that the kidnapping of football player Díaz’s father was a “mistake” because of the player’s popularity.
However, the ELN, with its 5,800 members, has refused to stop the kidnappings even after agreeing a ceasefire with the government in August, saying it needs the money to finance itself.
Cepeda acknowledged that the ELN’s continued use of kidnappings was costing support for the peace process.
The senator said that the government would not abandon negotiations, but if the ELN did not do its part, “something more serious will happen: people will mobilize […] people will come out to say ‘no more’ [ao processo de paz]”.
“If the ELN doesn’t understand this, it will come into conflict with the people.”